There’s a general consensus that atheists are to be distrusted. Without belief of an all powerful being who ultimately serves as a judge, jury, and executioner for all of our earthly transgressions, who’s to say atheists aren’t breaking any and every legal and moral law? Indeed, a lot of research has gone on to discover the extent to which atheists are distrusted, and the findings tend to suggest there is no limit. Non-believers are simply incapable of earning trust. But that’s not necessarily true.
In this episode of Science Sunday I examine a study published in Psychological Science [23(5) 483–491, 2012] titled “Reminders of Secular Authority Reduce Believers’ Distrust of Atheists.”
The researchers conducted a series of experiments on groups of non-atheist undergraduate students who watched videos that primed them for responses (Experiment 1, Police Effectiveness). For example, in one video for the secular authority test, a police chief discussed his department’s effectiveness at preventing crime. The control group either watched a video of a tourist discussing his first impressions of a city or were not primed at all. The researchers then had the subjects complete a task that revealed their distrust of atheists or prejudices generally. It should be noted here the researches tell us “In a subsequent funnel-debriefing interview, no participants indicated suspicion regarding the connection between the two tasks,” meaning it’s unlikely the participants biased the results.
Experiment 2 (Distrust of Atheists Versus Disgust Toward Gays) was rather similar, but instead of watching a priming video, participants were asked to make sentences out of jumbles of words, which may or may not have contained secular authority words, such as “jury” or “court” etc.
Experiment 3 (Distrust of Atheists and Gays Among American Adults) was very similar to Experiment 1 and 2, but participants came from a wider population to include non-atheist, American adults, which greatly increased the role Christianity plays in the results.
I’ll let the researchers sum it up. In the first paragraph of their overall discussion, they say it very well:
Our three experiments demonstrated that subtle reminders of effective secular authority—secular institutions that help secure cooperation among individuals—reduce religious believers’ distrust of atheists. In addition, we tested and found no support for three theoretically plausible alternative explanations for these findings.
The results are quite long and very detailed. I won’t bore you with them, but they all point to the same conclusion. As secular authority increases, distrust of atheists decreases.
I find it rather amusing that some religious people need to be reminded that police exist when talking about to what extent they can trust atheists. To me it seems that if a police officer, public prosecutor, judge, and a jailer can do all the things god promises to do, there is absolutely zero reason to suspect atheists are more likely to behave criminally or immorally. The police exist for a reason — not just to keep atheists well behaved — but to enforce the laws on the populations generally. But still, if the police department’s presence helps religious people overcome their stereotypes of and prejudices towards non-religious people, then I can’t complain too much.
Secular authorities exist and are more than willing to publicly mete out justice. I can’t say the same about any god.